The CNN Breaking News banner is permanently imprinted on our living room TV screen. When a TV is left on for an extended period of time, it causes a break down in the display’s phosphors and our living room TV is always on and always tuned in to CNN.
We each have our favorited CNN anchor- mine is Kate Baldouan, my husband’s is Jon King, my roommate likes Don Lemon, my sister is all about Jake Tapper. One of our favourite games is playing would you rather with the various anchors and correspondents. Would you rather have sex with Fareed Zakaria or David Axel Rod? Fareed. Who would you rather marry? Axel Rod.
When I walk out the door, I always have the latest episode of Five Thirty Eight or Pod Save America or Pod Save the World cued up. When I can’t make it home in time for Anderson 360, I listen to the podcast version on the way home, in my earphones on the bus or blasting loudly from my speaker and resonating through the dark streets as I walk the six blocks home.
At night in bed I skim Twitter and not Instagram. I’m more interested in Donald Trump’s latest tweet storm, Roxanne Gay’s caustic reply, and the general mayhem that is being generated by the current American political climate than I am of pictures of food, babies, even pugs.
In May me and my siblings are taking a trip to Washington DC; yes to see the Capitol and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, but first and foremost to attend a filming of Anderson 360.
I remember my parents watching the news when I was a kid. I remmeber the six o’clock ritual of temporarily abdicating the TV, something I groaned about predictably each time. It’s sooooo boring, I whined. I could not fathom their interest in this group of bland and balding white men droning on in their familiar and yet foreign cadence.
And yet, ever since the year leading up to Trump’s election, I have found myself addicted to the daily stream of news that filters through each of my various devices. The breaking news banner has come to be a permanent fixture on channel 220, a fact evidenced by the electronic footprint left in its wake. The breaking news banner has come to feel meaningless. I intuit the urgency of the news through a slight uptick in the tempo of the background music, an almost imperceptible escalation in the volume and speed of the anchor’s voices. I discern what is actually news by scrolling Twitter and seeing what is trending. What used to qualify as breaking news no longer feels current. Fifteen minutes ago is passe.
I admit I find a certain pleasure in being the first to catch actual breaking news breaking. I feel like a teenager with a secret who has decided to spill the beans. In the case of a teenager, the frisson that comes with divulging quickly turns to guilt and regret. In the case of breaking news, the guilt has less to do with exposure or betrayal, and more to do with shame. Horrible things keep happening in the world and I get a kick out of knowing first and knowing everything. I hate Trump but I have enjoyed politics over the past two years, and I don’t know why. I feel dirty about it.
I don’t delight in a school shooting; on an intellectual level I know it is tragic. Yet my hunger to know the details and the fixedness with which I stare at the TV screen belies an attraction. And it is prurient.
Studies suggest that over consumption of the news can result in anxiety, depression, even PTSD. They posit that watching the news, which is overwhelmingly and misleadingly negative, has an effect on our mental health. Indeed I know many people who choose to avoid the news for this very reason. I have a friend who was instructed by her therapist to consume no more than 20 minutes of news per day.
Studies also propose that the consumption of violent and graphic imagery can have one of two effects: it can sensitize you, resulting in PTSD-like symptoms, or it can desensitize you, deaden you, numb you. What worries me personally is the opposite of PTSD. What worries me is my lack of emotional reaction and my failure to absorb anything of emotional or intellectual valence.
In her book “Regarding the Pain of Others”, Susan Sontag, to great effect, examines the moral implication of viewing said images. She has so many brilliant things to say on this subject, and only the thinnest sliver can be touched upon here. She describes the tension between the futility of simply looking at these images and the necessity of doing so.
Sontag writes that it is not the images themselves that desensitize us, but rather our inability or unwillingness to do anything. “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated”.
Sontag suggests that despite this desensitization, there is a moral imperative to continue looking, if only as an invitation to reflect further, think more deeply, and under the best circumstances to act. She writes: “No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance or amnesia. […] Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing-may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget”.
Even if Sontag could justify my repeated and obsessive consumption of news, her words still don’t solve the problem, initially posed, of my compulsive ingestion of sensationalized sound bites, 280 character proclamations, headlines. There is still the question of attraction. What compels me to saturate every moment of my day with news? I readily admit an unhealthy attachment to CNN, but I do not restrict my consumption to sensational network news. I read and study politics widely, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New York Times, Nancy Isenberg, J.D. Vance, Arlie Russell Hochschild, James Baldwin, Naomi Klein, George Packer. I’ve met Rebecca Solnit, I read the entire Hillary Clinton biography, I know how to spell Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie without google. And yet, this does not explain my lust for breaking news, nor does it justify my ultimate political inaction in the face of all this knowledge. The more I think about it, the more I feel the news has nothing to do with the moral imperative to look and consider the suffering of others, The more I think about it, the more the news feels like entertainment, and this feels wrong.